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Hidden in a labyrinthine network of roads and backstreets, in the heart of a humble inner-city suburb, the Mai Tam House of Hope fosters abandoned children and struggling mothers infected with HIV/AIDS. From the outside, the House of Hope was no different from any other lofty, narrow house in Ho Chi Minh City, apart from the distinguishable two red ribbons by its entrance. When I first visited, Father John introduced us to the children: they were some of the most energetic children I have ever met but, at the same time, some of the world’s most vulnerable.
Visiting the home was life altering as it allowed me to grasp the severity of the situation, especially the extent to which even children are discriminated against. It was heartbreaking to meet children that knew little of what it means to be a child– what it means to lead a normal life. At Mai Tam, Father John introduced me to Đạt: an enthusiastic young boy so cheerful and full of life. As I watched him play, I would have never guessed that– after seeing his boisterous laugh and beaming smile– he was abandoned as a baby, and continues to be isolated in his own community. Like the 6,800 other children in Vietnam living with HIV/AIDS, Đạt has to confront medical, social and emotional challenges daily.
Imagine yourself, as a child, being feared and pushed away by all the children at school even though you haven’t done anything wrong. Imagine yourself, as a child, walking to the park where strangers begin to ferociously flail their arms at you, telling you to leave and take the virus with you. Imagine yourself, as a child, being demonised and illustrated as a social deviant by your own government, and driven out of your own home because of something you had no power over. The misconception that the infection can spread through casual contact persists which leads to people in Vietnam commonly taking unnecessary and stigmatising actions.
To these children, the condition is more than just an infection, but rather an incessant reminder of the discrimination, hardships, and bereavement they’ve endured since birth. When Mai Tam first opened its doors in 2005, HIV was a death sentence. Treatment was limited, especially in developing countries, and stigma kept vulnerable people from seeking help. But, in the years that I have worked with Mai Tam, I have witnessed the developments made in helping children in Vietnam with the physical and mental complications because of HIV– all thanks to Father John and his team.
Advancements have been made in preventing transmission; the availability of tests have increased; access to treatment is greater in Vietnam than ever before. When the HIV epidemic peaked in the early 2000s, no one would have thought that in just a decade HIV positive people would be able to live healthy and fulfilled lives. However, as people with HIV are living longer, we no longer consider it as pressing as it once was. We risk complacency and, therefore, we risk the digression of funding and commitment to helping overcome this epidemic. But what makes Mai Tam exceptional? Mai Tam is love in action. Since its founding, the team at Mai Tam has done nothing but show love to those denied compassion in their own homes.
As the only establishment of its kind in Ho Chi Minh City, they strive to empower children and mothers infected with HIV/AIDS by creating an environment where they can share their stories and, for the first time, not be treated with contempt. Over 500 residents are provided with access to healthcare and education, as well as the opportunity to make a modest income in workshops.
Despite funding from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mai Tam is still underfunded. On behalf of Mai Tam, I ask you to please reflect on what you’ve heard today and consider making a donation to the cause. For every dollar you donate, a child receives his medication for another day day; with each dollar, you are ensuring that that child gets to live to see another day. Complacency is not an option. Even with our recent developments, 36.7 million people worldwide are still living with HIV/AIDS; 2.1 million of which were children under 15 years old. In Vietnam, infection rates are rising and will continue to rise, especially if this standard of healthcare and social awareness continue to persist. So, what now?
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